Geoff Duncan emerges as key GOP critic of Herschel Walker in Georgia

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

‘He’s got four weeks left to change our minds,’ Duncan says

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan has hardly minced words about his fears of the Donald Trump-driven direction of the Republican Party.

But Duncan’s remarks this week condemning Herschel Walker represented a new break within his party — and made him the most prominent Georgia Republican critic of the Senate GOP nominee.

Duncan, the state’s No. 2 officeholder, had mostly refrained from panning Walker as the former football star steamrolled rival Republicans in the May primary and readied for a November race against Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

But he’s taken a sharper edge following Daily Beast reports that Walker paid for a 2009 abortion with a woman who later gave birth to one of his children. The allegations, which Walker has denied, undercut the Republican’s calls for a total ban on abortion.

In a prime-time CNN appearance this week, Duncan voiced a concern that many of his fellow Republicans kept private: GOP officials in Georgia are rattled by Walker’s struggles, which include a history of violent behavior and a pattern of lies, and the “baggage is startling to feel a little closer to unbearable at this point.”

“If we’re being intellectually honest, Herschel Walker won the primary because he scored a bunch of touchdowns back in the ‘80s and he was Donald Trump’s friend,” Duncan added. “And now we’ve moved forward several months on the calendar and that’s no longer a recipe to win.”

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

Duncan also is the highest-profile Republican in the state to publicly withhold his support from Walker, a telling development in a race that could determine control of the Senate.

“I’m not voting for Sen. Warnock, and like a lot of other Georgians, Herschel Walker has not yet earned my vote,” Duncan told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He’s got four weeks left to change our minds.”

‘Too little, too late’?

Duncan’s opposition to Trump and his allies — the former president is Walker’s most important political patron — is little surprise in Georgia political circles.

He forcefully spoke out against Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and he published a book, “GOP 2.0,” outlining his vision of a post-Trump party. He decided against running for a second term, he later said, to further that philosophy.

And he’s taken consequential positions in the past two years that have infuriated Trump’s base.

Among them: He boycotted a debate over a package of sweeping election restrictions in the state Senate. He delivered a death blow to a Trump-backed proposal to split Atlanta into two municipalities. And he refused to endorse Burt Jones, the GOP nominee to replace him.

“I don’t believe the election was rigged and he does,” Duncan said of Jones, who was among the fake electors who participated in a plan to help Trump overturn the 2020 election.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

But Duncan’s attacks on Walker also come at a time when Republicans are hoping to close ranks around their party’s nominee, with some leaders saying a GOP victory is more important than misgivings about the candidate’s past.

“Georgia could decide the Senate majority,” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said, “so desperate Democrats and liberal media have turned to anonymous sources and character assassination.”

Some Democrats, meanwhile, see a different motive in Duncan’s recent spate of comments.

“I’ve been vocal about appreciating when Geoff Duncan bucks his party to tell some version of the truth,” said Democratic state Rep. Josh McLaurin of Sandy Springs. “I just wish it weren’t too little, too late, as part of an audition to transition into being a paid pundit.”

‘We have to get better’

On Friday, CNN published an editorial by Duncan with this headline: “The GOP should never have bet on Herschel Walker.”

“If we want the American public to take us seriously,” he wrote, “we need to take the first step by nominating candidates they should take seriously.”

Many Republican skeptics of Walker privately applaud him for filling a void in the party. Gov. Brian Kemp and several other key GOP leaders are continuing to keep his campaign at arm’s length. But they’re not publicly criticizing him, either.

And Walker’s other prominent opponents in the state GOP have gone silent. Among them is Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, who finished a distant second to Walker in the May GOP primary.

Days before that election, Black told the AJC that he wouldn’t vote for Walker because of his history of abuse against women. This week, Black declined to comment.

Walker and his allies have lashed out. Walker strategist Chip Lake, a former Duncan aide who had a nasty split with the lieutenant governor in 2019, mocked his ex-boss on social media.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Asked at a Thursday event in Wadley about Duncan’s attack, Walker pretended not to know who he is.

“Don’t he go on TV and talk a lot?” Walker said. “Right now, you know people like that, do I listen to them? You know, people told me I couldn’t play football. So do you want me to listen to someone like that?”

Duncan shrugs off the pushback and noted that he doesn’t want to help Warnock, who he accused of supporting policies that have endangered the state’s economy.

“But Republicans need to be honest with themselves that the race has now shifted to a referendum on the flaws and questions about our candidate,” he told the AJC.

“Going forward, we have to get better about nominating candidates who can win general elections.”